Melissa Stylianou's No Regrets

I love Melissa. Really. 

She is an incredible singer, a fine human and has the kind of smile that starts wars. 

We first collaborated on her album Silent Movie - her first release on Anzic Records. The work on that album was thrilling for me. We talked about which songs to sing, why sing them, and how to sing them. We didn't get to talking about arrangements, chord changes, sticks or brushes or any of that stuff until much later in the process. 

In our meetings we focused on meaning. What is the song about? Who sings it? Are they happy? Sad? Snarky? Delusional? Are they young? Old? Fresh? Stale? and how does all that compare to previous versions of the song - if any. 

We really took our time preparing for the recording, and when we went into the studio things fell into place very comfortably. 

Fast forward to No Regrets. Melissa expressed her wish to make an album in a more, shall we say, expeditious manner. She also expressed her desire to explore a repertoire of standards which she has always loved, and sang, but never recorded.

As we explored the repertoire Melissa had in mind, the type of band we needed revealed itself. Swinging, great accompanists, fun to hang out with, interactive and musical. I keep coming back to an old mantra of mine; "See the Beauty". It can be challenging to find beauty in an old tune, especially if it is considered "overdone". Chord changes might be a bit clunky, and folks are sometimes tired of swinging 4/4. But when you find the beauty, and when it is in sync with the vocal interpretation (and perhaps shapes and informs it too) - you are in song heaven. 

We started with Bruce Barth. He's an extraordinary pianist and an attentive accompanist. He also swings real hard, and is a ton of fun to hang out with. Melissa worked with Matt Wilson before, and Bruce and Matt have been playing together for years. Matt is the kind of drummer who reveals and allows beauty; just listen to his ride at the top of "A Nightingale Can Sing The Blues," or his solo accompaniment of Melissa on "Down by the Sally Gardens". 

I suggested Linda Oh to Melissa, and she signed off enthusiastically. I've heard Linda on a few occasions, and worked with her once on an Anzic Orchestra performance with Anat Cohen. She blew me away every time. She has this woodsy, present sound, impeccable time and intonation, and everything she plays - solo or comping - is incredibly melodic and lyrical.

I don't think Linda had played with Matt or Bruce extensively before this recording, so their compatibility was a bit of an unknown. I kind of like that - it seems to keep everyone on their toes, but it does pose the potential of doom. There are some things that just don't work - no matter how hard you try. 

Melissa suggested inviting Billy Drewes as a guest, and we picked the tunes for him to play on. I love Billy's voice on the Alto Sax. Check out Billy's and Bruce's intro to "I Got It Bad". 

My friend and collaborator Anat Cohen also makes an appearance. It is hard for me to consider recording without Anat - she brings such joy and feeling to everything she does. Check out "Somebody's on my Mind", where Anat and Linda provide the perfect accompaniment. It is one of my favorite tracks on the album - distilled, direct beauty. 

I knew that James Farber has done a fair amount of live to 2-Track recordings (meaning, he mixes as the musicians play, and there is no additional mixing after the performance is done). I find this process very attractive. 

It really gives everyone in the live room a sense of seriousness of purpose. This take is "it". We don't go back. We don't fix. When it works, it enhances the magic. It creates complete performances, unforgettable moments of interaction, and a sense of "do or die." There is no "trying" - as in "let's try a take". We are creating. Doing. In the moment. As Yoda famously said "Do. Or Do Not. There is no try."

I also love the idea of walking out of the tracking session with a ready-to-master album. I called James and asked him if he would do a singer date live to 2-track. He said "sure!".

Now, I had to talk to Melissa. For anyone - recording live is a bit daunting, and even more so for a singer. The modern recording process allows singers to really finesse every phrase - tune it, inflect it just so, until it is right. There are tons of production articles about making a vocal track shine, strategies for comping a vocal performances from multiple (sometimes hundreds) of takes, taking a word from here, a breath from there, etc. This is not necessarily the way it is done on all records, perhaps not even most jazz records, but recording live - with no overdubs - is rare. 

It is clear that when a vocal is present, it is the focal point of the performance, so it makes sense to try and control the delivery as much as one can. And today - one can do some truly astonishing things in post-production. But sometimes - something is lost. In the microscopic view of syllables, parts of words and fractions of breaths the bigger picture, the humanness of the delivery is lost. It's hard to "zoom out" and consider the overall emotional impact of a vocal performance, whereas it is easy to align the phrase with the downbeat, tune a slightly off note to exactly the center of the pitch, remove mouth clicks and vocal pops etc. But does that really - always - make the track better? Very, very hard to assess. 

I described the live process to Melissa, talked about the advantages, perhaps minimized the challenges, and she said "sure!". I really admire her for that. I am still not entirely sure whether she knew exactly what she was getting into, and what the implications were, but she never looked back. 

We set the date, I prepared a few charts, Melissa and Bruce rehearsed once and went over the tunes and interpretations and we went into the studio. No full band rehearsal. I was a bit more on-edge than I usually am at tracking. We had one day booked, and there was a lot at stake. If anything went wrong, or even just a delay - we would not end up with a record. 

We started tracking around noon, and after about 7 hours, we had 16 or 17 tunes to choose from. There were some truly magical moments, and one of my favorites is on Somebody's on My Mind, at around 1:34. Melissa phrases in even-eights, and Anat and Linda echo her in unison. Now imagine Linda and Anat standing right next to each other, reacting to Melissa. No rehearsal, no written arrangement. It's a great musical moment - simple, and true. This album is full of those.

Melissa's vocals were not altered in any way, shape or form once they were captured. I've heard her sing many times, and knew her intonation is impeccable and phrasing solid and inventive, but to perform on the same level in a live recording situation is extremely impressive. It also requires a lot of trust. I'm proud to be on a team that facilitated that. 

Melissa decided to call the album No Regrets after a tune that ended up not making it to the album. We both thought the title captured the mindset of everyone that day. 

What's next, Ms. Stylianou? Ready when you are...(The question is a bit rhetorical. Melissa and I know what's coming)

Check out the album here: